Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ruminations of a Sickie

I've spent the last week or so with a cold that wouldn't go away. Monday I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with rhino-sinusitis. A nose and sinus infection, in other words. After three days of antibiotics, I'm better and ready to face the Illinois State students in their weekly exodus from Normal, Illinois. (At ISU the weekend seems to start on Thursday evening.) So, here are a few random facts and factoids:

I knew this already, but Michael D.C. Drout, in his course on CD, "A Way With Words III: Understanding grammar for Powerful Communication," reminded me of it. English used to have an additional two letters in its alphabet, for sounds we now write as th: the thorn (þ) and eth (ð). As the language changed, thorn was often written to look like the letter y. And after printing was invented, the type fonts imported from Italy or Germany had no thorn, so Y was the accepted substitute. Thus, "Ye Olde Tavern" is, in fact, "The Olde Tavern."

Also from Drout: A writing style popular in the Middle Ages made it difficult to distinguish the letter u from v or w, especially when written next to m or n. So scribes began to use the letter o in such words. Thus we have such words as money, honey, come, wonder, and love. Drout remarks that the cutesy way to spell love, "luv," was once the way it was spelled.

One more bit of wisdom from Drout: When I was a kid, I remember wondering why Captain Kangaroo mispronounced the word, "why" as "Y." I found out he really wasn't. As a guy from Babylon, New York, the Captain, Bob Keeshan, was saying it correctly. In the upper Midwest, we've held on to the earlier, aspirated pronunciation of "wh" as "hw."

President Barack Obama gave a wonderful speech Tuesday night, but his fact-checkers missed his line about the country that invented the automobile. That was Germany, not the United States.

The Moody Minstrel has a wonderful post about Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."

Gerry Rafferty, (1978 hit, "Baker Street"), who last August mysteriously disappeared from St. Thomas' Hospital in London, where he was being treated for a chronic liver condition, is apparently alive and well and living in Tuscany. I've noticed that his songs are being played more often on oldies radio stations. Maybe we can locate Christina "Licorice" McKechnie of the Incredible String Band, who's been missing since 1990. The ISB deserves some airplay. If you're out there, Licorice, I named the heroine of my work in progress (Helena McKechnie) at least partially after you. She's got your soft, sweet voice.

Finally, Peter of slow reads is, as usual, giving up blogging for Lent. This time he's announced it with a sonnet. I'll miss his posts. But his last few posts are worth reading and rereading. His blog is certainly worth revisiting during the next forty days.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Up then, Melpomene!" The tragedy of Elkhart, Indiana

"Up then, Melpomene! the Mournful'st Muse of nine,
Such cause of mourning never had'st afore."

Edmund Spenser, The Shepherd's Calendar, November

For just over a century--from 1884 until 1986, when this ornate Victorian structure was razed, the Muse of Tragedy gazed down on downtown Elkhart from her niche on the third floor of the Bucklen Opera House. And so long as she presided over the the city, Elkhart prospered. But now her tragic spirit seems to reign.

I've called this town, named for the island at the confluence of the Elkhart and St. Joseph Rivers which the Miami and Potowatomi tribespeople said was shaped like an elk's heart, home for nearly 20 years, even though I've had to work in other cities. For three years I was a regular columnist for the Elkhart Truth.

In recent days, it's become a poster child for the recession. President Obama came here earlier this month for a town hall meeting, where he gave encouragement to the many unemployed. Kathleen, who watched the meeting on local TV, broke into tears at the president's compassionate words. She works at the Elkhart Public Library, which is now crowded with men waiting to use the computers to check in with the unemployment office.

Not so long ago, Elkhart was the home of Alka-Seltzer, Selmer clarinets and saxophones, and just about every recreational vehicle manufacturer. The Alka-Seltzer story began just a year after the Bucklen Opera House opened.

In 1885 Franklin Miles incorporated the Dr. Miles Medical Company and began marketing the patent medicine Nervine, which Miles claimed was a remedy for "nervousness or nervous exhaustion, sleeplessness, hysteria, headache, neuralgia, backache, pain, epilepsy, spasms, fits, and St. Vitus' dance." Like most such tonics, it was alcohol-based. By 1931 the firm introduced the effervescent stomach remedy Alka-Seltzer; four years later it was Miles Laboratories. By 1977, when the German firm Bayer A.G. bought the company, its Elkhart plant was producing One-A-Day Vitamins, Chocks, Flintstones, and Bugs Bunny vitamins, Bactine antiseptic, among other products.

C.G. Conn established the musical instrument company bearing his name in the 1870s, and by his death in 1931, Elkhart was the band instrument capital of the nation.

The 1930s saw the beginning of the recreational vehicle industry in Elkhart, beginning with Schult Trailer Coach. By 1949 Elkhart was known as the "Trailer Capital of the World." And while it's still known as the Recreational Vehicle Capital of the World, it's hardly consolation to the thousands of Elkhartans who are unemployed today.

When my family moved here in 1989, Elkhart had seen better days. In 1986, the year the Bucklen was razed, Bayer moved Miles' headquarters from Elkhart to Pittsburgh. The Miles name disappeared in 1995, after Bayer acquired Sterling Winthrop, which owned the Bayer name. (Bayer's name and facilities had been confiscated by the U.S. government during World War I.) Today, Bayer is a minor presence in the city.

Whitehall Laboratories, which manufactured Advil, shuttered its Elkhart plant in 1991, taking advantage of a tax break to move to Puerto Rico. Conn-Selmer, bought by Steinway in 2000, has been crippled by a strike (the union actually recommended that the workers approve the proposed contract with Steinway) that has divided the community.

What we have left, mainly, is the recreational vehicle industry, which has been hit hard by the recession. Because RV factory work required little education, the people who have been laid off by Monaco Coach, Jayco, and other RV manufacturers don't have the skills to work in 21st century jobs. Even the Amish, with their carpentry and cabinet-making skills, are hurting from the implosion of the RV industry.

Elkhart is still a fairly safe place to live. My neighborhood (just down the street from C. G. Conn's mansion is lovely. A friend, who once lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods once remarked that only in Elkhart could she live in such an area and feel safe.

And Elkhartans have contributed more than their share to the arts. Three former residents went on to win the Pulitzer: Jay N. "Ding" Darling (editorial cartoons), Howard James (investigative journalism), and Charles Gordone (drama). Poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth spent his early years here. He liked to boast that he lived just down the street from where Ambrose Bierce lived. He didn't, but Bierce did live in Elkhart for a year or so. Architect Marion Mahony redesigned her brother's home into a Prairie School showplace. (Like the Bucklen, it was razed.)

Unless something happens, such as a retirement or resignation at the South Bend Amtrak station, we'll soon be putting our Elkhart house up for sale, and both of us will live in Bloomington, Illinois.

P.S. The statue of Melpomene was saved, though it's now in a private museum. It's way too delicate to put outdoors. But perhaps a replica of the statue needs to look down on Elkhart, perhaps from the 1920s Elco Theater. Maybe she'd bless the town once more.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Of Bonzo Dogs, Camels, and Lots of LSD

I was going to do a post on President Obama's visit to Elkhart, Indiana, the city of Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. Or one about the influence of Zoroaster on the three "Abrahamic" faiths and why they should perhaps be known as the Zarathushtran faiths. Maybe later. Right now I'm going to write about the Bonzo Dog Dooh-Dah (or Dada) Band.

The Bonzo Dog Band was part of that great absurdist British comedy tradition that included The Goon Show, I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, and Monty Python's Flying Circus. And because of its absurdity, I assumed that "Bonzo Dog" was just made up. Not so. When Kathleen was rereading Dorothy Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, she came across a reference to the Bonzo Dog. In fact, the Bonzo Dog was a British cartoon character created in 1922 by George Studdy. It would have been known in Britain, but not here in the States.

One of the more bizarre songs, in a collection of bizarre songs, was "Ali Baba's Camel."

Recently my daughter Anne found an earlier version of the song, by Buddy Lewis and His Orchestra, from around 1931:

So why does this 1931 song included these lines?

"You've heard of Ali Baba, forty thieves had he
Out for what we all want, lots of L.S.D."

Lysergic acid diethylamide was not even synthesized until 1938. It turns out that LSD was also British slang for money--actually £sd, for pounds, shillings, and pence. The initials are from the Latin: librae, solidi, denarii. I'm sure the Bonzo Dog Band had fun with the double entendre.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"If Music Be the Food of Love..."

Felix Mendelssohn, on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth (February 3), is getting a welcome reappraisal. National Public Radio did a story on recently discovered works by the German composer. A New York Times article tells of the efforts of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and conductor Kurt Mazur to repair the reputation of the composer, damaged more than a century ago by Richard Wagner's anti-Semitic attack.

Strangely enough, Mendelssohn and Wagner composed the two most popular wedding marches. Wagner's is majestic and triumphal, but there's a richness to Mendelssohn's march that celebrates love.

I'm no connoisseur of music, but there's a place in my heart for Mendelssohn, who died at the age of 38 in 1847. And among those of us who love music, but are not musical scholars, he's remained popular. His music is simply enchanting. Memories can play tricks, but as I remember our honeymoon in Washington, D.C., in the dog days of August, 1973, Mendelssohn was always playing in our hotel room. I'm happy that the musical world is bringing him back to the first rank of composers.